• It is incumbent on HR leaders everywhere to learn from this crisis and understand and leverage the learnings for future growth and impact.
  • Hybrid work will continue and evolve; mental health will remain an important focus and good leadership that is adaptable and agile will be more important than ever.
  • During the last 18 months we have seen HR professionals across the country and indeed the world, step up and lead their companies through this crisis.

In July 2020, the Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre published a research brief on the impact and response of business in Australia to COVID-19. Impact varied by business size and industry, with industries such as tourism, education & training, accommodation, and food services significantly affected. By June 2020, 66 per cent of businesses reported a decrease in revenue compared to the same period 12 months earlier.

In the two weeks from mid-March to 3 April 2020 the following workforce changes occurred in businesses with over 200 employees (similar responses were recorded across all business sizes):

  • 70 per cent changed their workforce in some way
  • 34 per cent temporarily reduced staff work hours
  • 23 per cent of staff placed on paid leave
  • 20 per cent of staff placed on unpaid leave
  • 62 per cent changed staff work location (e.g. Working from home)

HR leaders were called on to enable the mass moving of the workforce to their homes. They were charged with ensuring continued social connection with employees, they were required to learn (at speed) new workplace laws, government grants and government support payments for employees; they became experts in employee well-being and mental health (usually the realm of specialist workplace health and safety staff or external employee Assistance Providers (EAP) providers.

HR rose to the challenge of the crisis and excelled.

Deloitte in their white paper: COVID-19 Workforce Strategies for Post-COVID recovery discuss the implications for HR post COVID. They suggest that ‘HR leaders are uniquely positioned to prepare, support and leverage the workforce through the recovery and position the organisation for a new era of resiliency and sustainability.

Crisis to recovery

There are three themes consistently applied by successful HR leaders and were clearly evident throughout the management of the pandemic. The opportunity (and the challenge) for HR leaders globally, is to apply these themes during and beyond the period of recovery.

Commitment to the business

HR leaders need to understand and commit to the business in which they work. This requires HR leaders to demonstrate a level of commerciality and to understand the critical drivers of organisational success. For example, the impacts on revenue, productivity, and costs during COVID were significant.

Delivering with integrity

HR leaders should be role models, upholding the values of the organisation and the behaviours expected of the rest of the workforce. Delivering with integrity enables HR to build trust and gain loyalty with the whole workforce. Every employee was impacted differently, HR needed to be more human and demonstrate great empathy for what people were going through.

Taking action and accountability

HR is often described as reactive, overwhelmed, and unresponsive. They can over-complicate and over-engineer solutions that do not deliver on critical business outcomes. These words were rarely uttered during the pandemic.

What the pandemic has illustrated is that most HR leaders were more than capable of demonstrating the above. CEOs were happy and often relieved to have someone support them to lead their workforces through significant periods of uncertainty and trauma.

In April 2020, Josh Bersin conducted a webcast with over 2000 participants listening to seven of the world’s leading HR executives. The following themes were identified one month into the pandemic as it took hold across the western world.

  • Remote work is real and its big
  • Personal safety and health are paramount
  • Going digital is imperative
  • Caring, listening and empathy are priority
  • Distributed authority is key
  • Do less with less
  • Move fast and come together
  • Real-time data really matters
  • Continuity Planning is vital
  • Leadership matters. More than ever

Each of these themes demonstrate that HR was acutely aware of the commercial needs of the business, that real humans were impacted and needed ongoing support and care and that things needed to be done quickly.

HR done well

COVID-19 has demonstrated that HR can be the bold voice, making critical decisions in the face of uncertainty. The opportunity is there for business and HR to leverage the learnings from this crisis. As a result of HR’s actions many workplaces and businesses have continued to be productive and, in some cases, more-so; many more employees have felt cared for, supported and engaged; new and innovate initiatives have been designed, developed and implemented at an exceedingly fast pace and with limited budgets.

In time, employees and business will hopefully see the positives to have come out of this crisis. There will be a much greater focus on employees as individuals, the concept of hybrid work will continue and evolve, mental health will remain an important focus, leadership will continue to evolve and good leadership that is adaptable and agile will be more important than ever as employees take more ownership of when and how they work.

As we look back on this pandemic one day, we will see that HR can be done well and when it is, the business and the workforce prosper. It is incumbent on HR leaders everywhere to learn from this crisis and understand and leverage the learnings for future growth and impact. It is equally incumbent on CEOs and senior executives to recognise and leverage the important role HR can play in running a successful and productive business.

Featured in the Governance Institute of Australia (September 2021), governanceinstitute.com.au